An informational meeting Monday night on a new grading system at East Middle School drew about 40 people — parents, teachers and members of the school board — who wanted to learn more about how the system works.
The system, a pilot project for the Joplin district called standards-based grading, does away with letter grades and the traditional point-based system on which those letter grades are based.
Although it’s not fully implemented across the school, some students at East Middle School are given assessments in multiple areas, rather than receiving one letter grade in one broad subject. Some teachers at East began using the grading method this year, including for all seventh-grade classes, and use ratings of Exceeding, Met, Emerging, Not Met and No Evidence to assess their students’ understanding of specific material, course objectives or behaviors.
Jason Weaver, assistant principal at East, provided an hourlong presentation of the advantages of the standards-based system, which he said he used when he taught history at the middle school.
“Standards-based grading stops giving one grade for a class and starts breaking it down by individual skills within a class, and lets you know how your student is doing with each skill,” he said.
There are numerous impacts of the system on student learning, many of which East teachers have observed in their classrooms, Weaver said. By assessing individual skills, teachers can provide parents with a more accurate reflection not only of whether their child is learning the material, but also whether their child has appropriate behaviors, such as turning in assignments on time.
It also benefits students, who are given a method to identify their strengths and weaknesses in a course, he said. That type of specific feedback has been shown to be the “most powerful strategy” in motivating and encouraging students and increasing their achievement, he said.
“We’d be fools not to grab hold of something that has that kind of impact for our kids,” he said.
During an open forum following Weaver’s presentation, many parents asked questions, voiced their concerns or highlighted what they liked about the system.
Leigh Biastock, who has a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader at East, said she is “very much” OK with standards-based grading. Her children’s previous school, in the Blue Valley, Kan., district, used a similar grading system, she said.
“I think our children will be better motivated” under the standards-based system, she said during the forum. “Both my children are motivated differently, and I think this will help them. This will let them know what they need to do.”
After the meeting, Biastock, who with her family moved to Joplin last spring, acknowledged that getting used to the system in her children’s previous district had been “aggravating,” having been used to a more traditional method.
“But it worked for our children; that’s the end result,” she said. “They’re responsible for their work, and there’s accountability.”
Nicole Newcomb, the mother of an East seventh-grader, said she attended the meeting to learn more about the system, which had confused her as she tried to understand her son’s assessments as they were posted in an online gradebook.
“I think this has tons of potential,” she said during the meeting. When asked afterward to elaborate, she said, “You can explore different aspects of their grade so they can know where they need to improve.”
Kelli Owen, who has a seventh-grader at East, said that perhaps the biggest hurdle to accepting the system is that it’s different. She said she likes that the system can tell parents specifically what their child needs to work on.
But her concern, she said, is that students could be unprepared to revert back to the traditional system of letter grades when they reach high school. She also questioned whether the standards-based system helps children understand real-world penalties of not completing work or missing deadlines.
“Are the kids going to understand that transition that you don’t get to do things over (in real life)?” she asked.
Randy Steele, president of the school board, said at the meeting that the board has not discussed implementing the system at the high school.
Students at McKinley and Kelsey Norman elementary schools are also graded using a standards-based system instead of a traditional system based on letter grades.